60 years ago this month, 400,000 Londoners flocked to the City of London to see a newly-unearthed Roman temple.
Us doom and gloom merchants like to think we were higher-minded in the 1950s. I’m sure we were – but I bet a similar discovery today would get the punters queueing up in even greater numbers.
The discovery of the third-century AD Mithraeum shed a dazzling shaft of light on Londinium, which is still producing exceptional discoveries. Only last year, a delicately-carved, first-century AD stone sculpture of a Roman eagle, clinging onto a writhing snake in its beak, was discovered near the Tower of London. In a separate dig in the City last year, 10,000 Roman finds – including timber writing tablets, pewter dinner plates and 250 leather shoes – were found right next to the site of the Temple of Mithras.
How exhilarating that thousands more finds lurk beneath the City, and across Britain. With every find, it becomes clearer that Londinium wasn’t just some dreary provincial Roman backwater.
London was a vital component of a vital province of the Roman Empire – which controlled much of Britain, from the Emperor Claudius’s invasion in 43 AD until the Roman retreat in around 410 AD. The Londinium forum, just north of London Bridge, was the largest building in the Roman Empire north of the Alps.
The discovery of the Temple of Mithras, on the banks of the now covered Walbrook River, showed how multicultural the Romans were, centuries before the term was invented. One of the main reasons the Romans took over a vast chunk of Europe was because they were so adept at absorbing local customs into their own.
Mithras was originally an ancient Persian god, Mithra, adopted by the Romans across the empire. There were thought to be almost 700 temples to Mithras in Rome at the height of the cult.
That cult was particularly popular among Roman soldiers. Where they went, Mithras went. And Roman soldiers went everywhere, in the vanguard of the spreading Roman Empire.
Mithras was a pagan Sun god, with a series of arcane rituals attached to it – usually based on the story of Mithras being born from a rock, killing a bull, and feasting with the ultimate Sun god, Sol.
These foreign cults became so popular among the Roman legionaries that they were accorded even greater status than emperors. A 310 AD inscription at the temple of Mithras in the City of London reads, “For the Salvation of our lords, the four emperors and the noble Caesar, and to the god Mithras, the invincible Sun from the east to the west.”
The Romans didn’t just absorb local customs in whichever remote spots they conquered. They also offered the local bigwigs a taste of power. As the Roman historian, Tacitus, put it of the conquest of us slow-witted Britanni, “A [British] liking sprang up for our style of dress, and the toga became fashionable. Step by step, the British were led to things which dispose to vice – the lounge, the bath, the elegant banquet. All this in their ignorance, they called civilization, when it was but a part of their servitude.”
If all this wasn’t gripping enough, it’s the temples of Mithras that dictated the basic shape of British churches. That shape was brought over in the late sixth century AD by Saint Augustine, imitating Byzantine basilicas he had seen in Rome.
This ground plan – a nave, flanked by aisles, with a curved end – was in turn taken from ancient Roman temples. You can still see this basic shape in that Temple of Mithras in the City of London.
No wonder Londoners were so entranced by the discovery of the temple 60 years ago – they were gazing at themselves. Today, we’d all rush to do the same.